71-year-old Larry Pratt is photographed at home in Brisbane. He is a former highly respected racecaller, television presenter and journalist.
They say the world changes for the better and certainly in racing the advent of Sky Channel has revolutionised the way the punter of today sees racing. But long before such innovative technology as satellite television was available, the Larry Pratts of the world were the eyes of racing. They painted a picture by voice alone and with a transistor radio up to one ear the punter of yesteryear could see the race unfolding in front of them.
Larry Pratt has spent his entire 71 years living in the same street in the Brisbane suburb of Annerley. He was the youngest of seven children. His father Edgar was a fruit man, who delivered fruit to homes by horse and cart. In her role of homemaker, his mother Lillian no doubt had her hands full raising her four sons and three daughters.
By his own admission Larry had what he calls “no secondary school education and only a limited education overall” and explains why that was the case. “The two schools close by our house were Annerley and Yeronga and being born in 1935 meant I started school during World War II. But the Yeronga school was taken over by the Americans, so the Annerley schoolchildren would go to their normal school for the morning then go home and the Yeronga students would come to Annerley school from say noon to 3pm, so they each got half a day. And children didn’t start school until age seven or eight back then.”
Upon leaving school “at 15 or 16”, Larry’s first job was in the Brisbane City Council health department. “I wanted to train to be a health inspector. I was there for a couple of years then I did National Service and served my time in the Navy. When I came back from National Service I decided I wanted to see more of Australia, so took 12 months’ leave of absence from my Council job. I was playing rugby league in Brisbane with Easts (Eastern Suburbs Football Club) on weekends and went to Sydney to try out with Easts down there, but I wasn’t good enough. When I got back to Brisbane, I couldn’t get my job back in the Council, as someone had filled that role, so I got a job in the stevedoring authority, which was the instrumentality that looked after the selection of labour of wharfies.”
But Larry’s original Brisbane City Council employment certainly did change the rest of his life. It was there where he met Val Moore who worked in the rates department and the couple married on January 31, 1959. Upon being married Val had to resign her job in the council for, as Larry puts it, “back then married women weren’t permitted to work in the council or public service, but she did work as a doctor’s receptionist for some time after the children had grown up”.
Larry and Val’s marriage yielded four children, two sons Michael and Tim and two daughters Colleen and Kerrie-Ann. Today Larry and Val are the proud grandparents of 10 grandchildren. The sons have followed their father into newspapers with Michael being an award-winning photographer and Tim a Features Editor in Hong Kong.
From a young age Larry had harboured an ambition to be a racecaller. He explained how 2006 Stradbroke-winning trainer Barry Baldwin initially played a role in getting his race-calling career under way. “It was about the time I was working for the stevedoring authority and my older (by six years) brother Alby was training and was doing well. He had an apprentice called Barry Baldwin and there was a fellow who was calling races on the country circuit called Colin Whear who had married Barry’s sister Fay. Barry knew I wanted to be a racecaller so Colin Whear got in touch with me and said, ‘look I was supposed to go to Kumbia Saturday but I can’t, so you could go and have a try if you want to’. So I practised like mad and thought I knew all about it and I went up there and went shocking. In fact, I only got through the day because an old jockey mate of mine, Mickey Lenehan, stood on the back of the truck I called from and told me where the horses were. Anyway, we got through it and they engaged me at the big amateur day at Burrandowan the following Saturday. I went much better and that was the start of my race-calling career”.
Larry spoke of the camaraderie that existed between racecallers back then. “I got to know Vince Curry and he’d just come down from Toowoomba to replace Ron Anwin; and would regularly stay with us at Annerley until he moved permanently to Brisbane. Vince would inform me of any calling jobs up on the Downs, like say St. Patrick’s day at Warwick, and I’d get a day off work and go there and do it. That went on for a while, then, out of the blue, the ABC advertised for a sporting assistant. So I applied and there were a lot of applicants, but they’d noted in my application that I had called races. Clive Harburg, the sporting supervisor, who only passed away a few years ago, called me in and offered me the understudy job to Keith Noud who was calling for the ABC then.
“It seemed to take an eternity to get anywhere in that role. I’d go every week to the races and just do the PA work and occasionally Keith would put me on to call a race or two, but only at Albion Park; he had some misgivings with me calling at Eagle Farm and Doomben. But then, out of the blue again, in the mid 60’s – about 1964 – Keith Noud took over calling on 4BK as Tom Foley had retired. Noudy was on a yearly contract with the ABC, so he got out of that to take up the 4BK posting. So all of a sudden in Noudy’s eyes, I became a pretty good caller,” Larry says with a hearty laugh, referring to the fact that Keith Noud had to assure Clive Harburg that Larry was capable of filling his shoes before Noud would be released from his contract.
The ABC racecaller role also saw Larry become the face of racing and sport on ABC television on the 7pm Saturday news service. “Racing was a big thing back in the 70’s and between 7.10pm and 7.30pm in that Saturday night news service we’d cover mainly racing and rugby league and it was the ABC’s highest rating show of the week. That went on until 1985 when the Johnny Come Latelys came in and decided it was below the ABC’s dignity to carry racing, so they eventually chipped away at it and got rid of it in each State. The ABC had a sound coverage area, particularly in the country, because we had big repeater stations and the commercial channels couldn’t compete,” Larry recalled.
Larry’s early television appearances impressed the hierarchy at the now-defunct The Telegraph newspaper and he was offered a journalist job there, after he’d applied to the opposition newspaper The Courier-Mail for a job as a journalist without success years earlier. Larry wrote a column in The Telegraph for many years called “You Asked For It”, which he explained was “a question and answer style column mainly on racing like (Mark Oberhardt’s) ‘The Ear’ column in The Courier-Mail now”.
The late Vince Curry who was “calling in opposition to me for many years” earned unbridled praise from Larry Pratt. “Vince was a great broadcaster. He wasn’t only a great racecaller but he was a good broadcaster. He went to the Olympic Games in Munich and knew the job inside out and was a very good league caller, very able tennis caller and he was excellent at cricket and boxing. In fact, the only person I’ve ever seen who could do the same, except for racing, was Peter Meares, who is probably the best broadcaster I have known,” Larry concluded.
Larry spoke candidly of the emotionally testing times that beset him and Val in the mid 80’s, recalling in racing parlance that he “hit a few hurdles in life” and continuing by saying “I was sacked by the ABC when they made the decision to close down race broadcasting on radio’s first network, my father passed away, The Telegraph newspaper closed down, our daughter Colleen lost her six-day-old child and then to cap it all off I had a heart bypass operation”. Speaking now, some 20 years after The Telegraph closure, Larry commented, “fancy a place the size of Brisbane only having one paper, yet The Telegraph easily outsold The Courier-Mail on racing and had a better Form Guide”.
At age 50 Larry found his world had crumbled around him. He transferred to The Courier-Mail when The Telegraph closed down and stayed there until 1991, when he made the decision to retire permanently. In the late 1980’s Larry and Val bought another property at the Gold Coast to allow them to spend time between both places. The 1985 sacking that had unceremoniously ended his race-calling career led to a protracted two-year Federal Court legal battle over his dismissal. “I won the battle (in the Federal Court) and was paid out, but lost the war. They (ABC) were never going to reinstate racing, but I didn’t want to go that way. I’d had a lot of good times and we rated very well.”
Reflecting on his career as a racecaller and/or television presenter, Larry spoke of a few highlights that stood out in his mind. He recalled the Western Australian tourist authority seeking and being granted his permission to use his call of sandgroper Prominence winning the 1968 Brisbane Cup in an advertising campaign for their State, Larry commenting “so they must have liked that one”. He smiled when he recounted tipping “eight or nine Melbourne Cup winners as his on top selection over a twenty year period including 25-1 chance Baghdad Note”, which he noted when recently reading a newspaper clipping “only paid 5-1 on the Queensland TAB” (now UNiTAB). He explained why he still has such vivid and fond memories of the Jim Griffiths-trained Spedito winning the 1975 Doomben 10,000.
“The 10,000 back then was run in the first Saturday in July. It was run after the Stradbroke and Spedito had won that race and I really thought he was a good thing in the 10,000. In those days the ABC had a half-hour prime time television special on the eve of both the Stradbroke and the 10,000. I’d made a fool of myself by going out on a limb and naming Spedito as a special in the 10,000. There were a couple of hotpots in the race and he just kept getting out in the market. He was 25-1 and in those days if you won $1,000 on the punt you were doing well. When I walked down from the broadcast box to the betting ring on 10,000 day, two bookies, Brian Kelly and Clem Lovett, challenged me to accept 33-1 about Spedito. I couldn’t back down so I had $1,000 to $30 straight out with each of them. I never bet each way because you only lose twice as much.”
On the subject of winning bets he’d had over the years Larry said he bet “sparingly and not big” but admired the help his late brother Alby – a renowned conditioner of a horse – had given him in life declaring, “He’d always tell me if he’d set a horse up for a race. In fact, he did me a good turn the week we got married. The Wednesday before our wedding he had two horses in at Esk; one horse was called Sister Gay and the other Paula Dette. They both won, one was at 10-1 and the other one was 7-2. Brian Wakefield rode Sister Gay and Danny Markey rode the other.”
Larry recalled other betting plunges from Alby’s stable, saying: “Alby had a very big win on a horse called Intentionally at Albion Park one day. It had never been seen anywhere and just appeared out of the gloom and won by the length of the straight. Another one of his great training feats was with an unknown horse called Pupa Miss. It hadn’t started for three years. Tony Mazzaglia had trained it and it broke down, and wound up in a paddock at Kilcoy. Someone saw it there and Alby took it over. He got it ready for a ten-and-a-half furlong Maiden they used to have periodically at Eagle Farm. It was 100-1 and Kenny Pattillo, the Pattillo boys’ (Tony and Tad) father, rode it and he’d been apprenticed to Alby earlier. Alby got 100-1 and thought it was a good thing. He also thought Panvale was a good thing when he won the Queen Elizabeth Stakes in Sydney and (apprentice) Peter Cook rode him at 80-1.”
I asked Larry to comment on a big plonk that Alby brought off that I recalled with a horse named Yosemite and Larry remembered calling the race. “It was something like 66-1 into 7-2 and was like Fine Cotton, except Yosemite was legitimate! It was owned by the Kruger’s (Lyndhurst Stud) and I think Pam O’Neill rode it,” he said.
On the subject of Alby, Larry remembers fondly a mare Alby trained for the Foyster family called Chow Mien. “She was showing great promise but broke down irreparably in a gallop at Doomben. The vet recommended she be put down but Alby would have none of that. He took her back to his Nudgee stables and gradually had her back on her feet. She never raced again, but did create a name in Australian racing history by producing the champion galloper Ming Dynasty (won the 1977 and 1980 Caulfield Cups and the 1978 and 1980 Australian Cups).”
Larry named Tulloch as the best horse he saw race in Brisbane, stating “he came back from death and was invincible at his top and yet he was the most common looking horse you ever saw”.
Larry named four jockeys that stood out in his mind declaring, “Lester Piggott was the strongest jockey I saw, Neville Sellwood was the prettiest and George Moore was the headiest, because he could always get a run. But I think, alongside those three jockeys, Peter Cook was as good as any rider I ever saw.”
On the subject of trainers, Larry named Jim Atkins, Eric Kirwan, Doug Bougoure, Jim Griffiths, George Benn, Bob Glover, Tommy Dawson, George Boland, Fred Best, Roy Dawson, Bruce McLachlan, Neil and Daryl Strong and his own brother Alby as trainers who always had his respect. “Back in those days, though, they were winning (Brisbane trainers) premierships with 19 winners. There was no mid-week racing in Brisbane and Brisbane punters went to Esk, Laidley, Oxenford, Beaudesert, Southport and Gatton on the Wednesdays. Bundamba (Ipswich) had six Saturday meetings and The Creek (Albion Park) had 12 Saturday meetings a year and Doomben and Eagle Farm didn’t cop the pounding they do now.”
Larry, who only ever raced two horses, Castalerina and Keike, both were winners, admitted he doesn’t follow racing as closely these days, but still has an occasional bet. Asked if he still goes to the races Larry replied, “No, I don’t really, I haven’t been to the races for six or seven years, but occasionally I have a fluke bet like a trifecta or First 4. What’s probably determined whether or not I listen to them nowadays is that the coverage isn’t there anymore, it’s too restricted. You get the jump and the last horse past the post and then back to the studio. I don’t want to be transported to Alice Springs or somewhere, where you’ve never heard of a horse. It’s different for the people with Sky Channel, or whatever, but radio has lost its appeal from my point of view even though today’s callers are excellent at their craft, but I don’t get much joy out of listening to races anymore.”
Apart from Larry’s heart bypass operation, he and Val have both enjoyed good health and are “happy” in retirement. “I get a lot of people still ring me to reminisce. I read a lot and do a lot of crosswords to keep my mind active,” Larry said.
In his heyday, Larry travelled widely and was in constant demand to undertake guest speaker roles at major coastal Queensland cities like Townsville, Mackay and Cairns and country towns like Barcaldine where he’d “normally call a race or two” whilst in that town. It was testament to the esteem in which the name Larry Pratt was held in racing and sporting circles in general, that when the ABC sacked him and shut down race broadcasting Larry recalled “a great number of the people I had met in those towns rallied to the cause and through their numbers they actually got a Senate inquiry held into racing. It was very heartening to get their support; they put together 20,000 signatures to complain to the government.”
Another satisfying act for Larry involved the Brisbane caffeine crisis of 1985. He was convinced trainers were not doping their horses and that another unexplained element applied. His doggedness through television items eventually led to Dr. Ken Donald being brought into the investigation. It was only a short time before Dr. Donald discovered that the wooden swabbing sticks, imported from South America and being used by the QTC in their own lab, were impregnated with caffeine. Larry commented, “The good nature of all those accused persons who had been charged with positive swabs (something like 100 people) is witness to their forgiving nature. Had those individuals mounted a class action against the QTC, Eagle Farm would more than likely now be a giant housing estate.”
To this day Larry Pratt, who humbly informed me “I wasn’t a great caller, but I was reasonably accurate and reputedly had a keen eye in a photo finish”, well remembers that “shocking” first day as a racecaller at Kumbia which could have shattered a lesser man’s dreams. However, a combination of persistence and a will to succeed, which so often sorts out the wheat from the chaff in human qualities, allowed him to rise above the adversity of that initial failure and go forward to eventually become a household name Australia-wide in his chosen profession. His wonderful contribution as both a racecaller and racing journalist and the respect he earned from both his peers and national listening audience in over a quarter of a century of dedicated duty have ensured that the name Larry Pratt shall be remembered eternally in the history of the Queensland racing industry.